Carol Wilson (her name has been changed to ensure confidentiality) is a good illustration of the adage "simple cases, complicated lives" that often comes to mind when speaking of Bronx Community Solutions participants.
When Carol came to Bronx Community Solutions in July 2005, she had multiple previous convictions for drug possession and petty theft. Her rap sheet ran over 16 pages. None of these charges involved great issues of law or controversy, and in fact, a quick reading of the rap sheet would reveal little more than a cycle of arrests and convictions and a litany of penal codes (155.25 petit larceny, 220.03 criminal possession controlled substance - 7th degree) that tell us little about the circumstances of Carol’s life.
It takes a little more work, and imagination, to read between the lines of Carol’s rap sheet. Her photo shows a woman ravaged by years of drug addiction, during which time she had become homeless and lost custody of her children. At various times, she had been sentenced to a month in jail, long-term probation, community service and an alcohol rehabilitation program. Carol was not a particularly sympathetic individual - three warrants had been issued for her failure to comply with court orders, including her failure to complete a community service sentence in 1998.
Carol’s most recent case (she was arrested for possession of a small amount of crack cocaine) presented the judge with a difficult choice. Obviously, what was bringing Carol back to court again and again was her drug addiction. Based on her past behavior, however, he knew that letting her plead guilty and walk out of court in exchange for her promise to address the addiction was a tough bet. Should he take another chance on Carol?
Judges face this type of difficult choice after day, yet very little in their formal training prepares them for it. The reality is that while judges have a number of people at their disposal to answer questions of law, or criminal procedure, they rarely have anyone in the courtroom to help with the questions that must be going through their minds as they mull over a case like Carol’s.
With Carol, a Bronx Community Solutions staff member assigned to the courtroom had already flagged the case by the time it was heard by the judge. When the case was called, the judge asked the staff member if Bronx Community Solutions would accept Carol. The staff member, prepared to accept the case, recommended that Carol be sentenced to a combination of community service and social service, to total six days. Carol agreed to the offer and entered a plea of guilty.
To help ensure that she wouldn't walk right out of the courtroom and back to the streets, Carol was instructed by the judge to go immediately to the Bronx Community Solutions intake office for scheduling. (Research shows that the more quickly individuals enter and begin a program, they more likely they are to complete it.) Once she arrived, Carol and a member of the staff put together a schedule of classes that included an orientation, health education, and a session on decision-making (along with her community service), to begin the next day.
After the orientation class, Carol approached the instructor and expressed an interest in longer-term drug treatment. Sensing an opportunity, project staff arranged for her to enter a month-long inpatient drug treatment program instead of continuing to attend social service classes. The next day, a van sent by the treatment program picked Carol up. When Carol completed the program, Bronx Community Solutions helped arrange for her to enter additional, longer-term outpatient treatment.
At this point, the time Carol had spent in drug treatment had far exceeded the term of the judicial mandate. A six-day sentence had been leveraged into, first, a month of inpatient treatment, and then, continuing outpatient treatment. From the courts’ perspective, she had long since exhausted the judges initial mandate - her participation at this point was entirely voluntarily, which was explained carefully to Carol.
The story doesn’t end there, however. Soon after starting her outpatient program, Carol contacted Bronx Community Solutions to ask for help. Her current treatment was not working out and she intended to leave immediately. Project staff worked with her to coordinate screening and acceptance into an alternative residential treatment program, as well as additional outpatient drug treatment.
Now, Carol stops by Bronx Community Solutions regularly to chat with project staff and receive additional services, including family counseling for her and her daughter, assistance in obtaining entitlements, and guidance in addressing Family Court issues. To the staff who met Carol after her sentencing, the change she has undergone in just a few short months is miraculous.
We can’t know if Carol’s recovery will be permanent, or if she’ll go back to her drug habit after eight months of sobriety. Nothing makes a realist faster than working in an environment like the Bronx Criminal Court. Still, it’s clear that her time in Bronx Community Solutions has been better spent than the years spinning around the revolving door of drugs, crime and jail. At least for today, I think we can be happy about Carol's story.